1978: Sabre

Sabre (1978), Sabre (1982) #1-14 by Don McGregor, Paul Gulacy, Billy Graham et al

There are many comics that vie for the title of “First (American) Graphic Novel”. A Contract With God usually wins, but sometimes somebody chimes up with “How about Sabre? That Will Eisner book was a collection of short stories, after all.”

There are many reasons why Sabre won’t ever win that competition, and the first hurdle is just the format: While the editorial is very proud of the top quality production, it’s just a magazine. It’s a saddle-stitched, normal-sized magazine, and the story is around 40 pages long. That’s not much of a novel.

Even if the title page says it is.

Other reasons why people wants to skip it in a pantheon of respectable graphic novels is that it’s a sci-fi genre piece created by (former) Marvel staffers.

And, as we’ll see, it’s not very good.

Hm… David Anthony Kraft? Is that the guy who ran Comics Interview like forever?

Anyway! This “comic novel” is a mish-mash of various tropes from various, including Westworld (for the robots), Sergio Leone (for the hats) and Death Wish (for Charles Bronson’s face pasted onto Jimi Hendrix’s head).

Tee hee! New Yorkers are such lushes!

Paul Gulacy’s figure work is uneven, but it’s quite attractive and super-sharp. McGregor’s writing is consistently horrible. “His eyes are battered” er, right “like the cracked amusement ride” yes, those cups look battered, I guess “with the reminders of what they have viewed during the daylight” hang on, were those saucers battered by reminders?

*scratches head*

It’s not just that McGregor’s writing is bad on a word-for-word basis, but that there’s so much of that bad writing. Why does he find it necessary to describe the character above there when it’s so sharply delineated by Gulacy?

“Do you (explicitly) understand?” the blog writer said.

But it’s not all horrible. The storyline is completely nonsensical, but here where I thought he was going to fridge the heroine to provide revenge motivation for our hero (a la Death Wish), instead…

… she fixes everything herself. Which is refreshing. I’m not sure that really makes up for the pages of “titillating” rape build-up that preceded it, though.

“Life and death reflection seen in reverse”… What a strange thing to write. But then I notice that Sabre’s reflection in that guy’s eye hasn’t been mirror-flipped, so it really is in reverse. I mean, by not being in reverse it’s in reverse.

*scratches head*

The book ends with three pages where McGregor explains that Marvel (without naming them) have editors that are, like, really mean. And he thinks they should stop being so mean (to him). But meanwhile, he published Sabre at Eclipse.

So there you go: The publication Eclipse was founded to publish, and it’s not really a very auspicious publication. Well, not content wise, at least. But it’s nicely printed, and it’s strong on creator’s rights: Eclipse did not claim copyright on any part of the work, which was unusual at the time.

And then, four years later, Sabre continued.

The first two issues reprints the original comic novel, but in colour. And printed on toilet paper. Combined with the reduction in size, everything is very muddled and strained and ugly.

The backup feature by Elaine Lee and Charles Vess fares a bit better. I assume that’s the same Elaine Lee that wrote the wonderful Starstruck series? I wouldn’t quite have guessed by reading this, but I guess that the sense of humour is… there…

Anyway, by issue three we get new stuff and a new artist, Billy Graham. I wonder whether his first issue was targeted at a bigger print size, because everything is itsy-bitsy on the printed page, and almost unreadable when printed on toilet paper.

McGregor thanks Glynis Wein for being one of the best colourists ever, and Ed Hannigan for the… good colours… Thanks, Don!

I think the best way to sum up that box of exposition is: Nope.

Just nope.

Finally, by 1983 Eclipse gets rid of the toilet paper and starts printing on nicer paper. And it’s very nice paper indeed: Slightly cream-coloured, non-shiny, with very little bleed-through. As you can see here, it holds colour very nicely.

Reading between the lines in the letters column, Billy Graham’s artwork wasn’t much appreciated… for obvious reasons…

Huh. Did Eclipse release a “The Art of Steve Ditko” book? I just had to google that, and apparently: No. Even if they’re taking orders for it here, the project was never completed, because Cat Yronwode had a conflict with Ditko: Ditko lied about never having done bondage comics in the 60s, and Yronwode became disenchanted. At least that’s what’s being claimed now…

But this all leads me to wonder: Yronwode was obviously becoming a presence at Eclipse by now, even if she doesn’t show up in the masthead yet. But is that character a dig at her? It looks physically quite a lot like pictures taken of her at the time, and she’s the Strident Feminist in Sabre, played for yucks…

Wow. There were comics stores that sold 200 copies of Sabre at the time. I have no idea what the total circulation was, but it must have been pretty substantial in the beginning.

Ah, yes. Then we come to the controversial Birth Issue. If I remember correctly, what’s being alluded to here is that one of the distributors (owned by a Christian) refused to carry the issue of Sabre that depicted a child birth. (I know; the 80s were so long ago.)

I don’t remember what the fallout was. Perhaps this warning on the cover placated the lunatic.

A gay couple had been introduced a few issues back, and I had been wondering ever since when the blond(e) one would be killed off. There’s a dictum in all fiction: All Fags Must Die, but ameliorated when there’s more than one to The Faggiest One Must Die, and the blond(e) one is definitely the faggiest one.

And when the birth was coming up, I though, oh, right, here we go. Birth and death. Perfect. Now blondie’s finally dead.

Here’s the very, very, very controversial birthing scene.

But… what’s this!? Blondie doesn’t die!? Instead he kills the bad guy (who’s an animatronic lizard guy (yes I know))!? And then gives his boyfriend a kiss!?


*slow clap for Don McGregor*

Well played. I hereby award McGregor not only the You Didn’t Kill Off The Gay Guy Award of 1983, but also the first-ever You Didn’t Have A Notable Character Killed During A Climactic Birthing Scene; which is the first time this award has been given to any fiction writer, ever.

And this is allegedly the first man-on-man kiss in American colour comics. According to a web site that keeps track of these things.

The backup has artwork by Kent Williams, and it’s very nice artwork indeed.

But… but… what’s this? Instead of killing blondie we kill the heterosexual reader standin nerd character?

Oh, well. You lose the You Didn’t Have A Notable Character Killed During A Climactic Birthing Scene award, McGregor!

Birth, death. The cycle of life. So meaningful.

But what’s the meaning of this? Once again we see a character reflected in an eyeball, and once again, the image is not mirror-flipped! What’s the symbolism here! What! Is! It!

And speaking of symbolism, Sabre got a Spanish artist for the next story arc.

And he’s very, very Spanish. Which I like. It’s a style that suits the material very well: It’s stylish but slightly disheveled. The story in these issues moves quite glacially, but it’s an intriguing story being told with a large cast of characters. Things move slowly and non-obviously and it’s not even clear what the story’s really about when…

… after about 125 pages it ends.

It’s never a good sign when the writer says that the book definitely isn’t cancelled or anything! He also explains that he has a 4-500 page story in mind for this arc.

And then on the final page we get a notice from the publisher that the book is cancelled. It must have been a decision taken quite late in the production cycle, since the letters column was written before the cancellation.

It’s not really explained why the book was cancelled, but sales seem to be the cause? Perhaps?

It’s too bad, really. The first “comic novel” was a mess; the second arc had bad art and was overwritten, but had its charms; and the third arc was actually pretty intriguing. Finally when the book was read-worthy, it’s cancelled.

Oh well. It’s not like it was a masterpiece or anything, but…

2 thoughts on “1978: Sabre”

  1. Just discovered this site while looking up New York: Year Zero. Great stuff; I’m learning a ton, with gobs and gobs of stuff to track down now. Thanks a bunch!


  2. Hah! Great review, saved me from wasting my time. Thank you… The first few pages are so heavy with exposition, were people able to get past them and read the whole thing? Hah. I do have a soft-spot for Paul Gulacy’s art, though, no matter how awful the story it’s illustrating.


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